A Brief Guide To Demonic Cats Through History

August 11, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

Cats have quite a dark and checkered past. After their divine reign in Ancient Egypt, they soon descended into the depths of Hell – or at least, that’s what many people believed for centuries. Author and PhD Art Historian Paul Koudounaris attempted to set the record straight during a lecture on demonic cats at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn last week. Lovers of cats and the occult congregated, displaying their many tattoos and unnatural hair colors. One woman brought along her own taxidermied cat, which appeared to be macabre DIY project. The crowd packed into Morbid Anatomy’s basement for Koudounaris’ lecture. After quite a few technical difficulties, Koudounaris appeared, sporting an oversize Mad Hatter headware and a goatee strung with beads. It wasn’t hard to imagine this man writing multiple tomes about death in art history, or meticulously researching the history of sex with ghosts.


While flipping through a slideshow of amusingly unprofessional photoshopped images, Koudounaris kept the tone light throughout the talk, even when discussing cats who killed people, destroyed churches, farted poison and flew around shitting on terrified people throughout the Middle Ages. Koudounaris gave these far out legends the full benefit of the doubt, which was strangely heartwarming. Here are some things we learned at the demonic cat lecture.

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People always need someone to blame when something goes wrong. After human sacrifice became taboo, animals long remained fair game, and it seemed logical that the “soulless” (according to Christianity) creatures could be causing human woes.

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Cats are suited for scapegoating over other animals because it’s easy to dislike them. Unlike dogs, cats really don’t care about human’s need for ego-stroking. Christians in the Middle Ages accused cats of not accepting human divinity, which anyone who is a cat owner will agree is a hard point to argue with. In fact, it’s now been biologically proven that your cat actively doesn’t give a fuck that you own and feed them.

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Koudounaris suggested throughout his lecture that one of the reason cats have been frequently demonized (literally and figuratively) is their connection to ancient Egypt, which by the Middle Ages was seen as frighteningly foreign and heretical. They were polytheistic, for Christ’s sake! Later, cats became famously associated with witches, and with night time: the literal “darkness.”

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The crowd was laughing so hard it was sometimes difficult to hear Koudounaris. And it wasn’t just the stories of witches blowing the Devil into a feline by sticking a funnel up their ass – the images played a big role in the talk’s humor. Cat Jesus on a crucifix? Hysterical. Cat wearing a tiny witches hat? OMG. Unhappy looking cat with lopsided devils ears pasted into a medieval painting? A woman can only take so much! It’s only a matter of time until Koudounaris is hired full time by Buzzfeed.

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Quite a few of the demonic cats who terrorized villages, priests or homes were from the UK, which has a long and troubled history with the species. But it’s not all bad! England has an appointed “Chief Mouser” — a cat “employed” as an exterminator at 10 Downing Street. This tradition dates back to the 16th century, and in recent years Chief Mousers, who are paid about £100 a year for their work, have been the subject of multiple scandals. In particular, Humphrey, the Chief Mouser appointed under Margaret Thatcher, who was still serving when Tony Blair took office. Humphrey disappeared several times, and once was accused of killing a family of robins, which a journalist later admitted planting in an attempt to defame the government. The U.S. has no such position for a cat (Socks is the only Presidential Cat), but we do have a long running legend of a demonic black cat that haunts a basement room in the US capitol that was allegedly intended as a mausoleum for George Washington. This “Demon Cat” or “D.C.” is said to appear when the nation is in trouble. It famously appeared to Lincoln the night before his assassination. Or that’s what Koudounaris told us.

In addition to the unbelievably British tradition of the rat-killer-as-civil servant, Koudounaris ended his talk with another adorable story —  Simon The Able Seacat. Simon was found among the boats in Hong Kong by British Navy men in 1948, as Mao was taking over China. British Navy soldiers travelled up the Yangtze in the HMS Amethyst, and Simon served as their ship cat. When the ship was fired upon by Communists, Simon was hit by shrapnel and seriously wounded. Defying expectations, he survived and became a hero, tending to wounded soldiers in the sick bay and valiantly returning to the anchored ship to slay the hordes of rats who had colonized it and were threatening the sailors’ dwindling food supply. Simon even vanquished the biggest and baddest rat of them all, who the sailors referred to as Mao Tse Tung. Upon return to the UK, Simon was greeted with honors and fame, awarded the Dickin Medal (known as the “Animal Victoria Cross”) and became the only cat to ever earn a Navy rank, making him “Simon The Able Seacat.” He tragically was quarantined, as an immigrant, and died soon after his victorious journey, but he was given a full Navy funeral attended by all the Amethyst‘s sailors, and his grave is still visited by cat lovers the world over. His gravestone reads, “IN MEMORY OF “SIMON” SERVED IN H.M.S. AMETHYST.THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER.”

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(Images Courtesy the Morbid Anatomy Museum, Crowd photo: Sophie Weiner/ANIMALNewYork)